Tuesday, 11 December 2012
Book Review: Himalayan Blunder by Brigadier John Parashram Dalvi
Brigadier John Parashram Dalvi was the senior most Indian army officer to be taken prisoner by the Chinese during the 1962 Sino-Indian War. In his book Himalayan Blunder, Brigadier Dalvi gives his version of the events that led to India’s debacle in the Himalayas. I had picked up Dalvi’s book mainly to seek corroboration of Neville Maxwell’s claims in “India’s China War”, his widely acclaimed account of the 1962 border war between India and China. Maxwell’s main thesis is that India was the belligerent party and the Indian army, though totally unprepared, had been ordered to throw the Chinese out of positions which India claimed was within Indian boundaries. The Chinese (justifiably, according to Maxwell) launched a devastating pre-emptive strike against the Indian army and pushed their way to the plains of Assam. To a large extent, Dalvi’s account is in tune with Maxwell’s. Where these two gentlemen differ is on whether India’s claim to all land south of the McMahon line is justified. Dalvi, as may be expected from an upstanding officer of the Indian army, is firmly of the view that China does not have any right over Tibet and that the McMahon line ought to be India’s north western frontier. Maxwell on the other hand is very sympathetic to China’s claims over Tibet and does not believe the McMahon line, a British invention, ought to be the boundary between India and Tibet.
I will not try and summarise Dalvi’s blow by blow account of how an unprepared Indian army was ordered to march on hard scales, carrying pouch ammunition, thrown into battle with a vastly superior Chinese army and how bravely Indian soldiers fought despite overwhelming odds, in many cases, to the last man. Maxwell claims that in NEFA, the Indian army made useless sacrifices, when a withdrawal to Bomdi La would have made much more sense. On the whole, Dalvi agrees with this assessment. Dalvi also agrees with Maxwell’s opinion that if only the Indian army had followed the plan formulated in 1959 by General Thorat which recommended a triple tiered defence structure in the north-east, it would have fared much better against the Chinese. The McMahon line could not be defended by sitting on it. Instead the Indian army ought to have retreated to Bomdi La, closer to its supply lines and fought the Chinese army when it was fully stretched.
Certain sections of Himalayan Blunder are especially interesting. One is Dalvi’s description of the Battle of Tseng Jong, which took place 10 days before the Chinese assault on Thag La. BM Kaul had ordereded 2 Rajput to move up Tseng-Jong and occupy the Yamatso La peak (which is west of Thag La peak), 16,000 feet above sea level in full Chinese view with no artillery support. Dalvi convinced Kaul to first send a patrol of 9 Punjab to find a suitable crossing place for the Rajputs and cover them from a position at Tseng Jong. A patrol of 50 men led by Major Chaudhry advanced to Tseng Jong. On 10 October 1962, 600 Chinese troops attacked Major Chaudhry’s patrol. The Rajputs repulsed the first wave. It was obvious that they could not hold on for long, though the second Chinese wave was also beaten back, mainly on account of enfilade fire on the assaulting Chinese from the Rajputs hurrying up to Yamatso La. Major Chaudhry asked Dalvi for mortar and machine gun fire as a cover so that they could extricate themselves. Dalvi refused to order the guns and mortars at Bridge IV to open fire. The reasons given by Dalvi for his decision are interesting, but I’ll not detail them here. Please read this historical treatise (which should be mandatory reading for all students of modern Indian history) and find out Dalvi’s reasons. Dalvi says that ‘I and I alone, am responsible for the decision not to allow the mortars and machine guns to open up’. Quite unlike Kaul who, when things turned bad at Tseng Jong told Dalvi, ‘This is your battle. This is a brigade battle,’ and left.
Another equally interesting chapter deals with how Dalvi seriously considered resigning his command just before the outbreak of inevitable hostilities on 20 October 1962. His warnings had been ignored and his men were totally unprepared for the oncoming avalanche. Dalvi finally decided that ‘my place was with the troops who had followed me loyally to the Namka Chu. I could not bring myself to abandon all sense of responsibility to them, desert and leave them to their fate. In all humility, I felt sure that their loyal obedience was largely due to my presence with them throughout the operation. My departure would have meant more than a change in the person of the Commander.’
Who’s to blame for India’s debacle? Dalvi lays a large portion of the blame on the arrogant and high-handed Nehru who firmly believed that the Chinese would not invade, and his favourite courtier, VK Krishna Menon. Another big chunk is laid at the door of Lt. Gen. Brij Mohan Kaul, Nehru’s protégée who, despite not having held a war-time command, was tasked with throwing the Chinese army out of Indian borders. The legendary General Thimayya, one of the ablest Generals India has ever had, had warned the Indian government of the threat from China many times. Dalvi faults General Thimayya for not having immediately resigned a second time, when Nehru criticised him in Parliament. Instead Thimayya stayed on and retired as a broken man in 1961.
The Indian army had a number of soldiers with World War II experience. Thimayya was replaced by General Pran Nath Thapar who had served in Burma during the second World War in 1941 and later in the Middle East and Italy. However, General Thapar was playing second fiddle to Kaul who had zero combat experience. Dalvi himself had seen action during the Second World War. More importantly, he was one of the few Indian officers who served on the staff of General Sir. Montague Stopford during the Burma campaign. However, men like Dalvi had little say in decision making. The Chinese army on the other hand had recently finished fighting the US army in Korea and knew all about large scale operations.
Dalvi makes it clear that the Chinese army had prepared extensively for the war. They had prepared large prisoner of war camps and even padded winter suits for their prisoners. Dalvi tells us that the Chinese army had many ethnic Chinese who had lived in India and could speak Indian languages. Many of the local guides hired by the Indian army were allegedly in the pay of the Chinese.
Dalvi writes elegantly, with quotations from Napoleon, Marshall Berthier, Barbara Tuchman and Corelli Barnett. However, brevity is definitely not his forte and Himalayan Blunder runs to over 500 pages, including annexes etc. At times, Dalvi makes the same point more than once and the same ground is ploughed over yet again. To some extent, the repetition is on account of Dalvi specifically refuting claims made by BM Kaul in his memoirs (The Untold Story), which Dalvi does not mention by name. At the beginning of his tome, Dalvi tells us that the idea behind this book was born while he was held prisoner by the Chinese. Dalvi’s anguish and pain at the betrayal and loss can be felt in practically every page.
Himalayan Blunder might be a lengthy treatise, but Dalvi doesn’t give much away about his personal life. A two-page appendix mentions Dalvi’s career history and we are told Dalvi was born in Basra, where his father was serving the British administration and that many of Dalvi’s relatives had served in the British Indian army. There is no mention of any family member other than his father, that too in the context of the leather gloves gifted by his father which he wore during the fighting. We never get to know if Dalvi was a bachelor or if he was married with a number of children. From his Maharashtrian surname, I assume Dalvi was neither an Anglo-Indian nor had any European ancestry. Yes, I did wish many times that Dalvi would allow his readers to know a bit more about Dalvi the human being. In this YouTube Video which seems to have been posted by the Chinese government or with its approval and which gives the official Chinese view on the border war, one gets a glimpse of Dalvi after he was captured by Chinese troops.
Himalayan Blunder’s war commentary comes to an end shortly after Dalvi’s capture on the 22nd of October at 9:22 a.m., around 53 hours after the Chinese assault at Thag La. The subsequent events leading to the final collapse of the Indian army and China's unilateral declaration of ceasefire, which Dalvi calls an anti-climax, are summarised in a few pages. Further Dalvi doesn’t mention anything about how he was treated while held prisoner by the Chinese. Didn’t he think his readers would be curious to know? Or were those pages censored before publication? I’ll never know.
India did not use its Air Force in an offensive role during the fighting though the IAF was, in atleast a few respects, superior to the Chinese Air Force. Mind you, even China was not a nuclear power in those days. Would the outcome have been any different had India used its air force? The IAF’s current leadership seems to think so, but there are divergent views as well. However, Dalvi does not analyse this issue.